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Clipper Ventures

So do you want another?

by John Curnow 11 Nov 2019 13:45 PST
John Bertrand sailing with Billy Browne and Glenn Ashby in the 2019 Etchells Victorian Championship at Geelong © AJMcKinnonPhotography.com

He’s just about to collect lucky number seven from the runaway success that is the Allanson/Murray Etchells programme. This will be his third Etchells of that famous name, and this time, the date appears as part of it. All of which begs the question, does that mean next year he’ll want another one?

He’s won two World Championships in the Etchells, amongst some other stuff along the way in a truly stellar career. As always, he had some wonderful insightful words of wisdom for all people, whether they are sailors or not. Of course he is our own living legend, John Bertrand AO.

Yes Triad 2019 is to be the new name for his Etchells, which is the only class he has sailed competitively since re-starting his sailing in the early 90s. After winning the America’s Cup in 1983 and retiring from international competition (that was his 4th America’s Cup!), he never went near a sailboat until the Etchells and the people involved sparked his imagination.

JB has owned more than three Etchells in that time, but this new one will be the third to carry the Triad name. The name itself carries over his VJ and Light Weight Sharpies, both of which were Australian Championship vessels, of which JB fondly refers to as, “Classes the young ones probably never heard of, but super competitive (and fast) in their hey day.”

Over his Etchells journey JB has now won two World Championships in 2010 and 2016, some eight Australian Championships and even more Victorian Championships, but possibly still one less than his great mate Billy Browne.

It is quite an achievement, but made even more so by the amount of time the Bertrand clan lived overseas during that period, and he has also not sailed every year in that time band. “I love putting programs together. I love taking on a challenge. Yes the Finn and I have a long history together, and it is the class that will provide the third member for the Triad 2019 crew to join Noel Drennan from North Sails, and myself.”

JB was fourth at the Munich Olympics and third in Montreal (best Team AUS has ever done in the Finn BTW). It is a time he still views with great passion, commenting, “Rasa and I lived on 12 dollars a day, often sleeping in the car. It was great, and yes we did survive and we learnt a lot! But I had no coaching, no support, no nothing, as there was no AIS back then. East Germany and Russia were the powerhouses. It was not a case of drugs, like it had afflicted so many other sports at the time. It was their intensity of training, their professionalism their headspace.”

“In preparation for the Olympics, East Germany simulated the entire Montreal Olympic Village with street signs etc, to breed familiarity. They left no stone unturned. Competing and winning was highly prestigious for the Eastern Block countries, as it was their way of gaining international recognition.”

“We also lived in the USA during the 70s first in Boston where I completed a post graduate degree from MIT, and later in the Mid-West where the great Buddy Melges lived, worked and sailed scows in summer and raced ice boats in winter. Buddy was an incredible mentor to myself. It also allowed us to tap into that American competitive psyche and environment. That, along with long-term planning, financial and technical prowess, and their natural instincts are what delivered such amazing success in the America’s Cup.”

“It is often said the American's would eat their grandmother if required! It does teach you that this is the world of international competition; dog eat dog. But the key is also to have fun, while making no excuses or apologies. You only have yourself to blame in this environment. Within the world of the America’s Cup it became obvious our real competition was not the USA. It was ourselves. Could we take our blinkers off? Could we start to ask the question…what if?”

“History tells us the standard of international competition is always increasing, the bar is always being raised. The beautiful thing is looking back on it, our successful Australia II challenge was crude compared to today, and in 20 years time, today’s accepted world best practice will also look crude! Our thinking with Australia II was if we could attain maybe 20% of what the game would look like in 20 years time, we would become so good that even with the worst luck, we would still be successful! Herb Elliot used to say he trained to a level no one else even knew about. I like that. That is very cool.”

As the President of Swimming Australia, Bertrand is very much still at the of top-end of international competition. He was parachuted into heading up Swimming Australia after the London fallout in 2013. As he says, “I don’t have a swimming background per se, but I do have a high performance team building background with all those America’s Cup and Olympic campaigns under my belt.” He understands the importance and pressure of the Australian Swim team results in Tokyo. If the Captain of our cricket team is the highest office in the land, then you could argue that the Olympic swim team are our Rolling Stones. At Tokyo, they could account for 30-40% of the Gold Medals, if history repeats itself.

This is a point certainly not lost on Bertrand. “A lot of lessons learned way back when are still the same today. Resilience and toughness, both in competition and on the land, are utterly vital.” I asked if that was the case with the famous tale with how the KA-6 crew ran through the USA squad during morning exercise of the ’83 campaign. The words that came out from that trademark grin under the moustache we simply, “All part of it.” Clearly they had begun to turn the tables on the old foe.

Coming back to the Allanson/Murray Etchells, the ‘expectant father’ says, “It is all about evolution. This is one more kick-start for the Class, to take it to another level. In 20 years, this boat will also look crude, as we will have so much more technical knowledge. I love that idea.”

Rasa Bertrand says of her now 72-year-old husband, “He’s a student of life. He’s constantly asking questions, constantly learning.” JB replies, “All I know is that I don’t have all the answers. Far from it. In mentoring young athletes, my advice is to show them the bar is always being raised. Whether it’s within the sport of sailing, swimming, any other sport, or indeed within business. History shows us that within any 20-year time frame of the Olympics, there is a quantum leap in performance, and world records are annihilated.”

Looking sharp is no accident, with JB still in the gym and on the bike. He’s presently working through issues around a crushed L5 vertebra from a training mishap, and says, “I’ll be OK. Just got to toughen up!"

JB continued,"…the Etchells class is not an Olympic class with all the professionalism that goes with it. Basically it’s made up of weekend warriors, albeit some very sophisticated weekend warriors including pro sailors who are having a game changing effect. There is however much more potential than people realise.”

“These are exciting times”, he said, as we reflected on the level of sophistication now, compared to the ‘90s. That particular juxtaposition had been brought about by us reflecting on that famous TV interview when he and Denis Conner were sailing Etchells on Port Phillip back then, which was the first time they had met since 1983.

Ultimately, yes I do think JB does want another Australian, and even World Championship. So during the course of 2020, do look out for Triad 2019, because it will be somewhere there, always in with more than a chance at being part of the final mix… He’s got a pretty long history of doing so... And he will be having fun doing it!

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